Zahra Rose: Inspiring the Next Generation of Muslim Runners

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, by Fabienne Lang

Photography courtesy of: Zahra Rose

Join Zahra Rose Alazaibi's inspiring journey as she breaks barriers, fosters Muslim representation, and empowers the next generation in the UK's running scene.

There is a small seaside town in the south of England called Hastings. Like most small towns in the world, diversity there feels like a distant, urban concept. But lacking representation is not confined to small towns.

Hastings is Zahra Rose Alazaibi’s hometown and non-diversity was her reality growing up. Yet, amid this picturesque but homogenous backdrop, Zahra’s spirit soared. She embraced cross-country running while at school and started hiking at 13, summitting Snowdon on a charity hike before she even hit 15.

Her passion for the outdoors and being active blossomed from there. However, Zahra's journey isn’t just about personal conquests. It is about reshaping perceptions and breaking barriers, within and outside of her Muslim community.

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Zahra Rose

Zahra Rose plays an active role in the Muslim Hikers network, promoting physical activity and adventures within the Muslim community. She will be running London for the first time.

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Today, despite Zahra scaling peaks like Mount Kilimanjaro and trekking to the base camps of Everest, K2, and Broad Peak, she still finds herself navigating through the familiar landscape of underrepresentation.

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This realization hit her hard during her inaugural trail run event last year, a venture sparked by the encouragement of her friend, Haroon Mota, the visionary behind the Active Inclusion Network, Muslim Hikers, Muslim Runners, and Muslim Cyclists.

At the starting line of her race Zahra realized she was the only woman wearing a headscarf. “People in that environment are very English, very white, and very competitive,” she reflects. “It was daunting and uncomfortable. It really took me out of my comfort zone.”

“But it also inspired me to want to get more people involved.” Determined to cultivate change, she signed up for a second trail running event that year, competing alongside a small cohort of Muslim men and women. “And we had such a good time,” she beams.

(L) Zahra at the New York City Marathon. (R) Photography by: Benjy Johnson

Even though the numbers are still small, there is a glimmer of progress visible on the horizon. “I think the Nike hijab was a massive push in the right direction for the slight shift in representation in the UK’s sporting scene. I think that was the first time we ever saw athletes in a headscarf being promoted on such a large scale. But I do think there are still fields, in particular trail running, where Muslims, and Muslim women in particular, are very underrepresented. In trail races in general there isn't very much diversity at all, but we are seeing great groups pop up like Black Trail Runners who are doing incredible things,” explains Zahra.

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Even amidst these changes and her accolades as an Ambassador for The North Face and Sports Shoes, Zahra still regularly finds herself the sole woman in a headscarf at races, demonstrated at the Transgrancanaria trail running event later last year. Yet, this time, as she blazed through the rugged terrain she felt a sense of belonging, an affirmation of her presence in the sport she loves.

“My partnership with The North Face is a really big deal,” emphasizes Zahra. “Especially for members of our community because many of the barriers that come with getting involved in sports falls on clothing and people feeling their needs are not being met in the market.” Through her partnership, Zahra is diligently dismantling these obstacles, ensuring the Muslim community finds a welcoming entry point into the world of sports.

I’d love to see more Muslims at these events, because at the moment a lot of our community doesn’t know that these exist and don’t have the same access to these races as other people.

In tandem with organizations like Muslim Runners and Muslim Hikers, Zahra joins efforts to democratize outdoor activities within her community. She strives to make these experiences not just accessible but inviting for all. It's a commitment she lives by, leveraging her platform not merely to showcase her remarkable feats but to lead by example.

“I’d love to see more Muslims at these events, because at the moment a lot of our community doesn’t know that these exist and don’t have the same access to these races as other people,” Zahra clarifies, her passion for inclusivity evident. “As long as we have even one person who is willing to show up to these races I think it could really change the narrative.”

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Embracing challenges and seizing opportunities is Zahra's ethos. "By taking on things that scare you and just saying yes to opportunities, you never know which door it could unlock, which passion or interest you could take on just from experiencing something new," she muses. "So, my mantra is simple: 'Say Yes more.'"

Zahra at the NYC Marathon

London Marathon

In her relentless pursuit of breaking boundaries, Zahra has once again thrown herself into the fray by signing up to this year’s London Marathon. This will mark her second foray into the marathon circuit, following her debut in New York City last year with Strava for the Ladies Team.

“This will be my first time running the London Marathon,” she shares, her excitement palpable. “I run not because I’m the fastest or the best, but because growing up I never saw women in the hijab running, it seemed unattainable – despite growing up with a supportive marathon running father and his full encouragement. I run now because I want to show women like me that you can do it and there is space for us, and if there isn’t, I will make space.”

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Zahra's enthusiasm reaches new heights as she anticipates the camaraderie of fellow runners joining her in London, many of whom are her friends and newbie runners. “I'm smiling so much, even as I'm talking about it now,” she gushes. “It's so exciting because I know they're all going to love it. They're going to have that runner’s high. We're all going for a meal after and I'm just so excited to hear about their experience.”

I run now because I want to show women like me that you can do it and there is space for us, and if there isn’t, I will make space.

“I'm also excited for the crowds and the atmosphere, and to document it all to hopefully inspire people to come and try it next year for their first time,” she continues animatedly.

The Future Generation

“I never had somebody to look up to growing up that was Muslim or wore a headscarf that was doing all of these incredible activities, let alone seeing them in sportswear on billboards or in advertising. It wasn't the headscarf that was limiting me or religion or faith, it was not seeing people like me being promoted or being encouraged or being publicized at sporting events,” Zahra reflects.

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“For me, it's important the younger generation has people to look up to and that we are that representation for them. It's knowing that hopefully our actions today will inspire some little girl at some point to know that she's capable if she ever wants to do anything like this.”

As Zahra prepares to run the storied streets of London this weekend, we can rest assured she'll proudly sport her hijab, revel in the company of her friends, and continue embracing opportunities with a resounding "Yes." Through her journey, she not only enriches her own path but also paves the way for the next generation to follow suit.